The most prolific piece of writing advice out there is to “Show, don’t Tell.” We’ve all heard it, it’s been pounded into our heads by writing gurus and editors alike. Don’t skip over the important scenes because readers want to see what happens, not be told about it.
Until they don’t.
We’ve all read those scenes that describe the room to the very last detail, or every step someone takes to get across a room. Those scenes drag on, causing boredom, or worse, a reader to skip ahead. Sometimes readers are told one thing and shown another. This prevents that coveted suspension of disbelief in a way that prevents the reader from believing what the characters are saying.
However, if done right, it can create another layer to a story or character. Take the movie Hostiles, directed by Scott Cooper and starring Christian Bale, as an excellent example of when telling works in a story. It was slow paced, yet emotionally charged, (I’ll admit I was in tears within the first five minutes!) and I found myself not wanting to leave the theater for fear of missing some important character growth moment.
Let me explain a little of how Cooper (and the writers) got it right, hopefully without spoiling anything. Bale’s character, Captain Joseph J. Blocker is charged with returning a Native American prisoner safely home from New Mexico to Montana. Blocker’s previous assignments included capturing rogue Natives and imprisoning them. Right away there is conflict! Throughout the movie the audience is introduced to character after character bearing witness to who Joe Blocker is. Let me say, we are told he is not a good person. But I didn’t believe them, nobody in the audience did.
The question should be, why not? Why didn’t the audience believe that Joe Blocker was a bad man? For two important reasons: we were told. Each character that knew Blocker or had served with him told the audience what horrible things he’d done, some in the not so distance past. The second: we were shown something different. Each scene showed Blocker as a good, caring person. He gives up creature comforts for a woman he just met and saves the lives of people he was previously at odds with, so there was no reason for the audience to believe what we were being spoon fed.
Remember when I said that the suspension of disbelief might not be there when readers or watchers are told one thing and shown another? It might seem at this point that the telling didn’t work like I’m claiming it did. However, in one small, maybe two minute scene, all that build up comes to a head. We are shown what the audience already “knew” from all the telling. It showed that Blocker could effectively be both men, that he was two sides of the same coin. If the build-up wasn’t there, if the little clues weren’t sprinkled throughout the story, that scene would have come as a surprise and the action would have seemed out of character. In other words, it wouldn’t have worked. The telling had to be there so the action wouldn’t seem out of place, and the action had to be there so the telling was believed (eventually) by the audience.
There are times when telling is necessary, but remember that fiction is about cutting out the boring day-to-day details and getting to the meat of the conflict.
Tell me, how have you effectively used tell in the past? Are you struggling to find the right balance between showing and telling? Leave a comment below or contact me here.
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